Festivals AMERICANA FESTIVAL Donington Park

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The Independent Culture
Donington Park, situated at the very heart of England and normally a motorsport venue, was crawling with cowboys last weekend. Not only boys, actually; beside the bearded types who congregated around the beer tent in ankle-length Unforgiven raincoats stood women in saloon-girl red taffeta, while squaws with lurid head-dresses line-danced with Mexican peasants in front of the stage. Top-hatted quack doctors queued for hamburgers; grey-coated Confederate troops waited patiently for the Portaloos.

They were there for Americana '95, which was billed as a "lifestyle event". Lifestyle events are what country music festivals become when they're struggling for audiences. About half the people there - including most of the Wild West types - were there for the music; the other half turned up in vintage American cars or in megalithic motor homes or rode in on Harley-Davidsons. To make these chaps feel at home, "Europe's largest display of American law enforcement vehicles" was promised. There seemed to be only two, but perhaps the rest of them were working undercover.

The cars explained the grotty choice of venue; in the afternoon the music stopped to let the vehicles take a twirl round the race-track. The Harleyists, leathers on and silencers off, let rip on the straights; old and fat the riders may have looked in the paddocks, but on the road, flesh pinched by the G force, they looked beautiful, an eternally young wild bunch. The car drivers followed; families squashed into old pickups raced against pink Cadillac rock 'n' rollers while a white-stetsoned man eased his huge Texas-registered Fairlane round the corners with serene pleasure.

As night fell the music stage re-opened for the evening session. The acts were of mixed quality; the British acts playing cover versions seemed unlikely to have the clout to pull the event back from its "lifestyle" status, but Nashville's Heather Myles and the Cadillac Cowboys played some straight-shooting new country and Austin's Jimmie Dale Gilmore played a set of rare beauty. Despite his liking for country standards, Gilmore is hardly a traditional C&W artist. While most choose to learn their life- lessons at the Betty Ford clinic, Gilmore has studied long and hard with an Indian guru; his voice has an eerie, wise melancholy perfect for the country idiom.

On a day full of displaced culture Gilmore's was a true, pure voice. As the cowboys headed back to their caravans, a few Pontiacs and Thunderbirds were still rumbling their way round the service roads, cruising in search of the perfect American Saturday night.

At the Viennese Grill - one of those food outlets to be seen at every festival from folk to hard rock - the girl was bemoaning the fact that no one had bought any Vegeburgers that day. "I suppose I should have known," she said, "that cowboys and Vegeburgers don't go." It sounded like a cue for an appropriately melancholy country song.

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